Lately I’ve noticed fans and the media talk much more of bad teams “tanking” to earn better draft position. There’s even been talk of altering the NBA draft to eliminate tanking. Why is this talk much more prominent these days? Do you know of teams that legitimately try to lose games? And for that matter what do you define “tanking” as?
It was more prominent back before the NBA Draft Lottery. In fact, that was the onus for the creation of the lottery. After the lottery was created, and with subsequent revisions, it isn’t profitable to do that anymore. It’s not really an issue in the NBA, nor in the NHL with their lottery system.
Leagues that draft on finishing record, though, are still subject to it. A notable case was in 1985 (pre-lottery) when the Pittsburgh Penguins were widely suspected of throwing the last third of their season to get Mario Lemieux, later confirmed. There was also “Suck For Luck” a few years ago with the Indianapolis Colts, but that was as much a case of a really bad quarterback helming a team in decline as it was overt throwing of games.
The problem with tanking is that you can’t easily prove it. A bad team will lose a lot of games naturally, so who’s to say that they’re losing on purpose? Over the course of a season you might get a feel for it happening. I can’t think of a recent example that I can point out and say that it was a team clearly throwing games to get a better pick unless we assume the Colts did it.
As AIrman Doors says, there used to be legitimate concerns that NBA teams were deliberately losing games down the stretch to improve their draft position- the Houston Rockets were partcularly notorious. But the lottery system has largely put an end to that.
Over the past few seasons, I have seen more media speculation that NFL teams may be tanking, but frankly, I’ve never seen any evidence of that. Most NFL players and teams are trying their hardest all season, even when they’re way out of playoff contention. That’s partly because of the nature of the game- you CAN’T very well tell your offensive line, “Don’t protect the quarterback, don’t open holes for the running backs, just let the defenders run over you.” That amount to telling them “Let yourself get beaten up physically on every play.” What player would agree to that?
The Jacksonville Jaguars, for instance, were either the last team or ONE of the last teams to win a game this year. They started off 0-8, and had no chance of making the playoffs. They still won 4 games down the stretch, though they had no incentive to win. Pro football players generally have too much pride to roll over and play dead.
It is absolutely still an issue with the NBA. Just look at the Golden State Warriors two years ago. They were going to keep their first-round pick if it was in the first 7 picks of the draft (otherwise, they would have had to send it to the Utah Jazz). They shut down all their good players at the end of the season with minor injuries and lost enough to be tied with the Toronto Raptors for the 7th worst record. They then won a coin flip for the 7th position in the lottery and didn’t get jumped by any team with a worse record.
It was pretty blatant. And that’s just the very first example that comes to mind.
It’s absolutely still an issue in the NBA. The concern isn’t about teams dumping individual games so much as it is about not trying to win for whole seasons because it’s easier to build a good team through the draft than through trades and free agency. You can see from some of the proposed solutions that it’s a tough problem to address, and I agree it’s hard to define when a team isn’t making an effort. In part that’s because tanking is a sound strategy, at least to some extent. It’s better to start with a clean slate and have a young, cheap team with some high draft picks than a mediocre team with older and more expensive players. Assuming you manage things correctly, which is easier said than done, it’s easier to make the first team a contender than the second. And I do think it’s fair that the worst teams get the best draft picks in some form.
Why is this a big issue now? I’m not sure. I think part of it is just social media and part of it is labor issues: owners in every sport talk about making the system fairer and giving every team (not just big-market teams) a chance to compete, but then they don’t really address those issues. They just maximize their own take. So then fans are left thinking the system is supposed to give everyone a shot at winning and they don’t understand why that’s not happening.
It’s a big issue, I think, because teams are getting smarter, and smart people are starting to notice just how beneficial a tanking strategy is. The fact of the matter is that it’s nearly impossible to become a great NBA team without at least one generationally-brilliant talent. Super-superstars, the kind you build a championship roster around are almost invariably selected at the very top of the draft when they come out. The league over the last few decades has been essentially defined by guys who were all very high draft picks. As a rough measurement, right now, the top twelve scorers in the NBA were selected second, third, first, fifth, second, seventh, third, tenth, first, fifth, ninth, first in their respective drafts. Paul George is popularly considered a sort of surprise superstar who the Pacers stole in the draft, and he was the tenth pick. In order to get even that pick, you have to be a pretty shitty team. If you’re in charge of a team right now that doesn’t have one of those guys on it, there’s no rational reason, in terms of future outlook, not to try to blow your roster up so you can get one. This is particularly true right this second since it’s pretty widely anticipated that there are going to be three or four can’t-miss franchise-type stars available in the next year’s draft. Given the choice between winning 39 games this year and being the same team next year plus whoever you can draft at pick #14, and winning 20 games this year and giving yourself a real chance at drafting the Wiggins/Parker/Embiid of your choice, it’s actually kind of a no-brainer to put it in the tank. Which causes all kinds of competitive problems from a purist perspective.
The NFL is a little bit different because of the size of the roster, the importance of scheme, and the total crapshoot nature of one-off and wildcard playoffs, but even there, all things considered, if you want to be a great team you probably should get a great quarterback. And historically the best way to do that is to be the worst team in the league.
And baseball it’s very different too. Player development is much slower and more filled with uncertainty and you have much bigger rosters. One great player makes a bigger difference in the NBA than in those other sports. And almost everyone except maybe Milwaukee seems to understand that there are two basic ways to build a really good team: bottom out and pick the right guys in the draft and then keep them as long as you can, or hoard all kinds of interesting assets and package them together for star players. If you’re great and don’t already have the pieces in place to become great, you’d rather be really bad than kinda decent. I’m not sure what the best way to address this is. People don’t want to watch or buy tickets to see a team that isn’t even trying to win, but there’s nothing wrong with a team planning a few years ahead and watching a mediocre team full of guys making too much money isn’t exactly wonderful entertainment either.
I’m not so sure about that. Tanking is a very real way to rebuild a team look at what the Astros are trying to accomplish. Grantland had a grea article this summer about the benefits of tanking in baseball.
I’m not saying you can’t tank in baseball. The Astros obviously are doing it, and it may be smart from a strategic standpoint but a raw deal for their fans as far as I’m concerned. What I was trying to say is that in baseball the rebuilding process is different and takes longer. The Celtics were bad in the mid-2000s and collected a bunch of tradeable assets. They won 24 games in 2006-07, made three big deals, and won the NBA title the next year. The Heat let pretty much their entire team go three years ago, signed three great players, filled out the rest of the roster with spare parts, and they’ve been the best team in the league since. Those are outliers, but that’s possible in a game where you have a roster of about 12 and only five guys on the court at once. In baseball, where you have 25 guys on the major league roster and even the best pitcher only goes once every five days and the best hitter might come up four times a game, I think those turnarounds come more slowly.
I wonder how much of the obsession is fans claiming their team is purposing tanking instead of admitting they just suck. Not to say that tanking doesn’t happen (it clearly does), but sometimes I think it gets brought up to ease the minds of fans that want SOMETHING to cling to.
The only people who don’t talk about the Boston Celtics tanking this very season are the Celtics themselves, but only because they can’t. It’s a strategic business decision.
Teams don’t tank, no player is going to go out there and try to lose so the team can replace him with better players. Front offices tank by not putting together competitive teams. What can you possibly do about that? The early picks in NBA and NFL drafts can be franchise changers, and not giving them to the worse teams is an even worse solution.
How does a team go about tanking?
I assume the general manager or owner or maybe even the coach decides the best chance for long term success is to not win many games this season. Then what? Do you tell the players to not play as hard?
Maybe if you are the owner or general manager you bench top players for injury reasons. You might even be able to convince the coach to play more conservatively and not take any unnecessary chances. But I don’t see how you can convince any actual players to let up.
Its not easy to get players to tank. It can be accomplished by sitting your stars and playing the bench but those players are going to play hard. They are playing for their spot on next year’s team or a different team. An individual player is not going to care that their team got a high 1st round pick if they are out of a job.
The front office simply does not put together a competitive team, that is as far down the chain as it goes. Players and coaches are not benefited in any way by losing.
No, you don’t tell the players not to play hard. You don’t need to. You trade the best players unless they’re young and cheap and thus part of your long-term plans. In return you get guys who aren’t that good and who have some other desirable quality like a big expiring contract. You give more playing time to the young players you already have so you find out if they’re worth keeping. (You may trade them, too, if you get the right offer.) Those players make mistakes and don’t play that well. And if you have some players who just aren’t that good, you can play them instead of trying to get an immediate upgrade. Once you do stuff like that it’s not exactly hard to lose.
As a SA Spurs fan, all I have to say is… you keep believing that, OK?
(In the lottery area, the Spurs successfully tanked to get Robinson and Duncan. Imho, after game 6 last year, they should have blown it all up and gone “riggin’ for Wiggins.”)
Ugh. That’d be like tearing down the Sistine Chapel because you heard Donald Trump might want to build a mall there in three years.
It’s a big issue now, obviously, because the upcoming NBA draft is one of the deepest in history.
(Or so I’m being told… not a huge college ball fan.)
ETA: Or what Jimmy Chitwood said…
Plus the competitive field is nowhere near the same. In the NBA, if you have a Lebron or a Duncan, and particularly when he’s on his first contract, that’s a leg up in talent level per dollar that other teams simply can’t match unless they’ve got their own superhero. Your 1-5 is very nearly inevitably going to be better than theirs. In baseball, you can amass #1 overall picks and use them really well, like the Rays did for years, and end up with a great talent pool, but when the next guy just spends 6-10 times as much as you per position, they can make up that talent gap. You aren’t going to have a superhero 1-9.
Players get hurt and stay hurt. Your rookies start and play key minutes, and the last few spots in the rotation go to undrafted rookies so you can “take a look at them.” You encourage your players to play a fast pace – they’re young guys, after all! – so the other team has 95 possessions per game to leverage its talent advantage instead of 85. You don’t have to deliberately scheme anything to intentionally lose. The NBA game is played at such a high level and teams are so desperate for slight advantages that any combination of long-term strategies that will cost you some significant fraction of a point per possession, like playing a guy who sucks at interior defense but is “developing” along with a rookie point guard who can score but shoots a low percentage and turns the ball over too much, can put you in turbo-tank mode without too much trouble.
If you think about it the other way, teams like the Spurs and Heat are constantly trading immediate short-term success for longevity and playoff success by playing bench guys for long stretches during back to backs and letting younger players get an occasional start over the vets, even if it costs them a few wins in the process. When you’re tanking you basically just want to make the exact same decisions; it’s just that you aren’t exactly looking to minimize the short-term losses.
…and failing all that, you trade your OK players for shitty players’ expiring contracts.